Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s new film will subvert all you thought you knew about procreation, writes Tara Brady
Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water. Prepare tobe amazed and discombobulated. As Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s transfixing new film Evolution opens (see opposite page), 10-year-old Nicolas (Max Brabant) happens upon a dead body in the waters surrounding the idyllic island where he lives with his mother (Julie-Marie Parmentier from Sheitan and The Snows of Kilimanjaro).
Indeed, their remote seaside community is entirely peopled by women and pre-adolescent boys. The mysterious population all visit the island’s hospital, a facility where the boys are all subjected to medical “treatments”. What exactly is going on here? Why are there no adult males? What is that strange indigo medication that Max receives every day? And can a sympathetic young nurse ( The White Ribbon’s Roxane Duran) allow for Max to escape whatever dread fate awaits him?
Theanswers willsubvert everything you thought you knew about reproduction. Male pregnancy, it soon transpires, is the least weird aspect of Evolution’s science fiction. How on earth does Hadzihalilovic come up with this stuff?
“The first idea was the male pregnancy and the hospital,” says the writer-director. “At the very beginning the movie was more about the hospital and the idea of the mother bringing the boy there. And that horror idea of the boy having something inside his belly. I had forgotten that when I was 10, I went to hospital for an operation. It was the first time in my life when my body was bring touched by adults I didn’t know. And because I had pain in my abdomen there were questions if I was having my period. That seemed very mysterious. I guess that hospital and becom- ing a woman became linked in my mind.”
I wonder – as all viewers will – what kind of conversations she had with her young lead, Max?
“He was not so young – he was 13 years old – when we made the film,” laughs Hadzihalilovic. “I was waiting for his questions. But I think he didn’t care so much about the script. He just wanted the experience of being in the film. The two questions he did ask were: will I have to get real injections? And who is going to play the girl? For him the kiss was the most crucial scene. The other boys all said: ‘Oh, you’re kissing a naked girl.’ I guess it was the first time he was kissing an older girl. And once we were shooting, all our conversations were more about the discipline of how to act with the camera.”
It’s tempting to see Evolution as an inversion of Hadzihalilovic’s equally mesmerising debut feature, Innocence. That film, a loose reworking of FrankWedekind’s novella Mine-Haha, or On the Bodily Education of Young Girls, followed a group of young girls who, arriving in a coffin, were sequesteredin a remote dormitory and trained for sinister, ambiguous future roles. Does Evolution tell us that we raise young men just as callously as we raise young women?
“They are both about the horror of puberty,” nods the filmmaker. “I don’t think that either film has a single interpretation. I liked that the women were the threat in the new movie. But as a child you’re not so concerned about girls and boys. That happens more with maturation. I mainly wanted to find a way to tell a story in images, not like a straight narrative. I don’t want to tell everything. There are already too many films like that. And not all of them are good.”
Hadzihalilovic was born in Lyon in 1961 to Bosnian parents but was raised in Morocco. She studied fine art, then film-making at the Institut des Hautes Études Cinématographiques in Paris. Her graduation film, La Bouche de Jean-Pierre (1996), explored child abuse from the viewpoint of a young girl. This hard-hitting short and Hadzihalilovic’s collaborations with the director (and her domestic partner) Gaspar Noé ensured she was introduced to global audiences as part of the New French Extremism. He was a camera operator on her early shorts; she edited his terrifying 1998 debut, I Stand Alone.
“It’s a compliment, yes?” she says. “We worked on each other’s films but I think our films are very different now.”
In person, the surprisingly jolly Hadzihalilovic doesn’t seem to fit neatly with either New French Extremism or, indeed, with the cerebral, hypnotic innovations of Innocence or Evolution.
“That’s why it took so long to make Evolution,” she laughs. “I thoughtitwould beeasier than Innocence because it was less abstract, but it was still too hard to explain. It’s a bit like film fantastique or science fiction. But it’s not either. It was hard for producers and financiers to get what it was. If I have a film family, it’s probably Peter Strickland ( Berberian Sound Studio, The Duke of Burgundy), or Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani ( Amer, The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears). Eraserhead had a big impact on me. The Italian films of Dario Argento. That’s not exactly right, because maybe I’m more realistic. Maybe Jean Painlevé films are the closest thing to what I do. I’m just happy people react so well to the film now and seem to understand it!”
Lucile Hadzihalilovic “The first idea was the male pregnancy and the hospital” They are both about the horror of puberty . . . I liked that the women were the threat in the new movie
EVOLUTION Directed by Lucile Hadzihalilovic. Starring Max Brebant, Roxane Duran, Julie-Marie Parmentier. Club, IFI, Dublin, 82 min Let me try to do what Lucile Hadzihalilovic almost certainly doesn’t want us to do and explain what’s going on in her latest, wholly wonderful mind-wrecker. Women are sea creatures. Boys are, when approaching puberty, treated as if in danger from some chronic disease. Men don’t seem to exist. Food is sludge.
All this might be feminist metaphor, but, as a stunning last shot clarifies, there is a world elsewhere that looks a little more like our own. So, maybe the nightmare is just a nightmare. Sometimes a mass of women that comes together to form a writhing quasi-kraken is no more or no less than it seems to be.
Still, Evolution does appear to be firmly set in allegorical space. Shot in Lanzarote, the film takes place in a timeless village that a giant thumb looks to have smeared across the black hills in clean chalk. The largely deserted streets suggest the utilitarian surrealism of Giorgio de Chirico’s paintings.
Nicolas (Max Brebant), the young protagonist, occupies a stark interior with his female carer – probably not really his mother – that could serve as the setting for one of Beckett’s more severe plays. (Note how the table at which he consumes his wormy goo faces the wall.) Hadzihalilovic could not make it any clearer that she is bringing us to an archetypal Nowhere.
Then again, much of Evolution is so stubbornly dark that almost anything could be going on in its Chiaroscuro corners. Manuel Dacosse, the gifted cinematographer whose brilliant work on The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears almost made that film watchable, is allowed to take full advantage of the wide screen and he responds brilliantly.
Few films have moved from the macroscopic to the microscopic with such enthusiasm. A long shot of the bay allows just one tiny pink figure to break up the beautiful murk. An intense close-up of a minute sea creature advancing on a human gland plays like a David Attenborough broadcast from Hieronymus Bosch Island.
All of which peripheral discussion can only delay analysis of the plot for so long. It is 12 years since Hadzihalilovic’s previous feature, the unforgettable Innocence. In that time she has contributed to the script for Enter the Void, directed by her husband Gaspar Noé, and shot one impressive short, but her distinctive cinematic voice has, otherwise, remained unheard.
Evolution is more opaque than Innocence, but considerable more disciplined than Enter the Void. What happens is puzzling, but the events are as confidently arranged as those in a Kafka short story.
We begin with gorgeous undersea foliage oscillating in the shifting tide. Nicolas swims down to the seafloor, where he seems to encounter the body of a boy. Later he is fed revolting food and given medicine by the person who might be his mother. He sneaks out at night and finds the women of the village
Max Brebant seeks his origins in Evolution
writhing maniacally by the sea.
We subsequently discover that some (maybe all?) have valves down their back like sea creatures. Are they forming a collective beast?
Nicolas is taken to a hospital where the young nurses dig into his stomach, implant something suspicious (not to say “fishy”) and set to monitoring him with a dull, steampunk scanning device.
There is something of Shane Carruth’s Upstream Colour in Hadzihalilovic’s work. But Evolution is altogether more fantastic and other-worldly than that coldly logical slice of everyday surrealism.
Taken as a concise fable from a weird world, it works rather wonderfully. What kicks the film into the essential is, however, its constant adjacency to meaning. That is to say, it is forever on the point of making perfect sense, but never quite makes the final leap.
It’s a bit like life that way.